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Scandal in Bohemia

A degree-granting affair opens the Czech public’s eyes to a burgeoning problem of university governance and financing. by Michael L. Smith 4 January 2010

At about the same time as global experts and policy-makers converged on Prague three months ago to discuss the problems facing Czech colleges and universities, the biggest academic scandal in decades broke, thrusting the issues of university financing and governance smack into the top spot on the evening news.

The talking points at that mid-October conference included inequality in Czech higher education, ineffective systems of student social support and university management, poor links with the labor market, underfunding, and the lack of academic mobility among scholars. The experts’ recommendations were unambiguous: introduce tuition and student financial aid; forge closer ties between universities and the economy; and improve teaching and research by fostering competition.

TROUBLE IN PLZEN

When a student at the University of West Bohemia’s law school uncovered evidence of blatant plagiarism in the thesis of a high academic officer at the faculty last fall, little did he know that this would lead to the discovery not only of more cases of plagiarism but also of many abuses at the school in Plzen. Dozens, if not hundreds, of what were dubbed “fast students” received law degrees in a much shorter time – in some cases a matter of months – than the usual five-year law program normally takes. The admissions process at the faculty lacked transparency; some theses and dissertations – perhaps nonexistent – were never deposited in the faculty’s library, as the law requires; some students miraculously passed exams in subjects they never attended.  

Marek BendaMarek Benda, chair of the Czech parliament's constitutional law committee, is the highest-ranking politician to be caught up in the Plzen law-school scandal. Creative Commons photo.

But what has raised the most eyebrows were not the troublesome practices themselves, but who seems to have benefited from them. After the scandal broke, the media reported that many of the problematic degrees concern politically connected and highly influential players in Czech politics, such as the mayor of the city of Chomutov, the head of the Plzen police, the children of a former mob boss, and the chairman of the parliamentary committee on constitutional law. Some of the people most embroiled in the scandal also authored legal opinions that significantly influenced some of the largest government tenders in recent history.

The seriousness of these connections led Vladimira Dvorakova, the head of the Ministry of Education’s accreditation committee, to publicly claim that the problems at the faculty posed a threat to national security: “I am speaking about an organized network – about a system that police officers, strange businessmen, politicians, judges, lawyers, and public prosecutors passed through. … I consider it a security risk and I consider it my obligation to communicate it.”

For higher education policy-makers, the fundamental question that the Plzen scandal raises is this: are the problems at the law faculty a mere aberration in a fundamentally sound university system, or do they reflect larger problems that Czech colleges and universities face as a whole?

UNHOLY TRINITY

Most of the current research on Czech higher education points to three major areas in need of reform: inequalities in access to higher education, how colleges and universities are financed and at what levels, and their governance. Even though Czech public universities remain tuition-free, applicants from wealthier families have much higher chances of acceptance. Studies have shown that this is largely due to the structure of secondary education: kids from high-status families predominate in academically oriented high schools (gymnaziums), which are the best entry routes to university. According to the OECD’s international Pisa survey of 15-year-old students, only 18 percent of bright Czech students from the poorest families aspire to a university education, compared with 95 percent of their wealthy peers.

Plzen’s famous Urquell brewery.
As the Plzen scandal reveals, inequalities in university admissions can be exacerbated when the admissions process lacks transparency, enabling well-off and well-connected applicants to get accepted with little or no documentation of prior studies. In 2000, the law faculty of the prominent Charles University in Prague faced a major corruption scandal when it emerged that entrance exams were being sold for up to 4,000 euros, though no one was ever found guilty. Another factor that contributes to the lack of transparency is the fact that most academic departments at Czech universities write their own admissions exams – the results of which are difficult to verify in cases of malfeasance – as opposed to accepting the results of standardized achievement tests.

Inequality relates not only to university admissions but also to the large income differences between Czechs with and without a college degree. According to the newly released OECD data, the Czech Republic ranks fourth among developed countries in the private returns of education. By investing in higher education, a Czech man can expect to gain the equivalent of $146,000 over his working life in increased income and other benefits, after educational costs. Since academic titles are highly prized in the job market and can be a source of corruption, the Czech branch of Transparency International recommended in light of the Plzen scandal that “the comprehensive publication of theses on the Internet and a publicly accessible registry of achieved higher education be considered as effective tools for the public oversight” of academic degrees.

The economic value of education has been one of the main drivers in the mushrooming of private, for-tuition colleges in the Czech Republic, which now number 45 (compared with 26 public and two state universities). Those colleges generally lack the prestige of private colleges in the West, but their ability to churn out successful graduates – whose prospects do not differ materially from graduates of the top public universities – has increased their enrollments and has led to sizable profits at some institutions. Even so, the expansion of private institutions has not saturated the huge demand for higher education.

The economic returns of education lead directly to the second problem of Czech public universities: financing. Despite the increased earnings the average graduate receives, university education is almost entirely funded by taxpayers, rich and poor alike. A new government-sponsored survey of more than 6,300 Czech university teachers indicated that 70 percent of respondents support the introduction of some form of tuition along with income-based student financial aid, an idea that is also supported by the rectors of many public universities. The OECD experts in Prague also came out strongly in favor of introducing deferred tuition – fees paid by graduates once they enter the work force, and only if they earn more than a certain threshold, such as the average wage. Deferred tuition is also proposed in a government white paper outlining proposals for higher education reform. Student groups have expressed stiff resistance to this idea – over concerns, they claim, about educational inequality.

Another dimension of university financing is the debate over how to link public funding for academic research to the quality of results achieved. The governmental Council for Research, Development, and Innovation has introduced a point system for evaluating the results of research, so that for instance a scholarly article published in a prestigious journal will receive a higher point score than one published in a less prominent journal. The accumulated points are then used as a basis for distributing taxpayer funds to support research. But the system, which has been supported by bodies representing Czech universities and industry, has met fierce opposition from the Academy of Sciences and some of its prominent scientists, the main beneficiary of public research funding outside the universities. The academy claims that it faces serious budget shortfalls because of the point system, yet the council, the prime minister, and even President Vaclav Klaus insist that the academy will end up getting significantly more money from the state budget over the next three years, in large part thanks to EU structural funds.

 

The third, and perhaps most contentious, area of higher education reform is the problem of governance. There is strong consensus that the state should have its hand in the affairs of universities as little as possible. The problem is rather with the governance within universities: academic senates have relatively large powers, such as selecting rectors and approving budgets; yet their members bear little if any responsibility for the outcomes of teaching and research.

The problem of university governance has become a hot topic in light of the Plzen law-school affair. The academic senate of the law faculty either knew, or should have known, about the systematic malfeasance that went on over several years, yet did nothing about it. The government reform proposal, while not a direct response to the Plzen case, calls for a clearer alignment of powers and responsibilities, as well as a stronger role for university boards of trustees. To forge closer ties with the labor market and the business sector, the reform envisions that trustees be selected not only from the ranks of academics and alumni, but also from business and civil society leaders, as is the case, for example, at public universities across the Atlantic. As Petr Mateju, the lead author of the reform proposal, explained in an interview for Czech television, “Corporations are a bit cautious in collaborating with universities when they do not see that their structure of management is at least a little similar to the management structure of firms. The trust between the two segments will be greater when colleges and universities become more transparent, when it is clear who is responsible for what, and who can negotiate with whom.”

Jiri PospisilJiri Pospisil, a former minister of justice, was named to head the Plzen law school in a move to restore the program's credibility.
Proposals to change the decision-making at universities inevitably evoke fears about the loss of academic freedom. However, academic freedom needs to be distinguished from the way universities are managed. No research has shown that scholars are less free to express their views at public institutions where corporate leaders dominate the boards of regents and play a major role in governance matters (as in most public universities in the United States), than at places like Charles University, where the faculty-elected academic senates call most of the shots. OECD experts suggest that governance is one of the most important, and complex, areas of reform, and will continue to require further dialogue.

GETTING OFF THE GROUND

The debate on higher education has naturally created stiff alignments, with the Education Ministry, university rectors, and business associations strongly supporting reform, while the Council of Higher Education Institutions and student groups are largely opposed. Of course, the devil is in the details; the rector of Charles University, for example, recently proposed the introduction of tuition fees, but not in the form recommended by government experts. In the political arena, the only area of reform to have received much public scrutiny is tuition, which has been categorically rejected by the Social Democrats, Communists, and Greens. While the centrist and right-wing parties do not publicly defend the introduction of tuition, indications suggest that those politicians support tuition in private, and would be willing to implement it when the political conditions are ripe. As the economic crisis persists, and as the Czech Republic’s public debt deepens, political willingness to introduce tuition may change.

While it is not likely that any substantial changes to the funding and management of universities will be made during the remaining six months or so of the current caretaker government’s tenure, education officials are continuing to prepare legislation so that it can be ready for the next parliament to discuss. Whether or not the reform legislation will pass depends not only on the electoral results but also on the ability of the major parliamentary parties to begin deeper negotiations on higher education reform – something that has not really happened so far. While the experts seem to have reached their verdict about Czech higher education reform, time will tell whether Czech politicians will follow suit.

 

Michael L. Smith is a senior researcher at the Department of the Sociology of Education, Institute of Sociology, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.

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